More than once, Scripture states that God does not regret divine decisions. According to Numbers, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of humanity, that he should regret (נחם; nacham)” (23:19). Other translations say that God does not “repent” or that the Lord cannot “change his mind.” Yet, this seems to contradict other instances of God regretting prior actions. Before the flood, “the Lord regretted (נחם; nacham) that he had made humanity” (Genesis 6:6), and God decides to start anew. So, does God “regret” or not? The apparent dilemma dissolves when we read the contexts of the verses that describe divine decision-making. When the text states that God renounces regret, this word pertains to the matter at hand. In other words, God’s refusal to reconsider is not an unchanging divine attribute, but rather a particular pledge for a specific setting.
In the example from Numbers above, Balaam—a non-Israelite seer—speaks to the Moabite king, Balak. Hoping that Balaam has cursed Israel, Balak asks him, “What has the Lord spoken (דבר; diber)?” (Num 23:17). Balaam, whose curse God has turned into a blessing, responds, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of humanity that he should regret (נחם; nacham). Has he stated but will not do, or spoken (דבר; diber) but will not affirm? Behold, I received a command to bless; [God] has blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (23:19-20). Balak wants to know what God has spoken in this particular instance, and Balaam tells him that the Lord has spoken an irreversible blessing. If we recite Numbers 23:19 out of context, then it can sound like a universal declaration about God’s consistent inability to change direction in deed or thought; however, in its proper context, the verse speaks of God not regretting the decision to bless Israel.
Contextual reading also alleviates unnecessary tension elsewhere. In First Samuel, God says, “I regret (נחם; nacham) that I have made Saul king” (1 Sam 15:11); and then, in the very same chapter, we read that God “is not a human being, that he should regret” (15:29). Here, again, God’s denial of regret pertains to the immediately preceding word to Saul, namely that “the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day” (15:28). On this day, the Lord will not retract the decree. While the Lord regrets making Saul king, God will not regret removing him from the throne.
Certainly, God is capable of regret (indeed, God is capable of anything)—to deny this would be to deny the words before the flood: “I regret (נחם) that I have made [humanity]” (Gen 6:7). When Scripture says that God does not “regret” (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29), it refers to the decisions to bless Israel and to install David’s kingdom. God’s lack of regret in these instances shows that the Lord does not retract divine grants and blessings, “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).